Monday, April 11, 2022

Connacht-21 Leinster-26

ALL TO PLAY FOR

Apparently there was a colour clash that made the two teams difficult to tell apart for some viewers - personally I think I've seen so much of these squads that I recognise the players well enough for it not to be a problem but I can see where the confusion was.


But more importantly it was in the rugby where the teams had to be separated and there certainly wasn't much in it come the full time whistle setting things up for a second leg on Friday that we know Connacht will be all in for.


Usually on these writeups I like to lead off with a pivotal incident from the match before going back to the start but with this being more of a "game of four quarters" I think it's better to begin at the very beginning...


0-20


Anyone who didn't fully expect Connacht to throw the kitchen sink at us from the start hasn't been paying attention. Their skipper Jack Carty got things underway and when Luke McGrath's exit kick came down in play around the halfway line, that very sink was primed and ready.


Much has been said about the greater amount of returnees from the Six Nations in Leinster's squad from the meeting of these same two sides a fortnight ago but when it comes to both talent and personality, adding the name of Bundee Aki to your teamsheet is probably as much of a boost as three or four others and after a few phases it was he who broke the Leinster line putting his side at our 22.


From there he had great support and further strong carries and offloads got them about 10m from the line until a dogged counter ruck, inspired by James Lowe, quickly won possession back for Leinster and after a few set up phases, it was down to Lowe to clear his lines.


But Connacht weren't done with this attack just yet and lock Leva Fifita got himself in the way of Lowe's big left boot and the block fell kindly for John Porch to put his side back in possession again. Now it was critical for the home side to take points from this visit and they did just that.


They first patiently set things up with a carry or two before sweeping it left until a Jack Carty pass was perfectly timed, weighted and directed to evade Robbie Henshaw and Porch didn't need to miss a beat in his line to take it all the way for an opening score.


Maybe a load of BT Sport viewers were surprised by that start but Leinster fans were not among them. However, the flip side is that Connacht fans were well aware that many is a time we conceded an early score before having some decent possession ourselves, so when Carty's conversion went wide there was still a lot of work to do.


Sure enough our own attacking patterns were looking good from the off, with Sexton pulling the strings and Dan Sheehan's darts going well on the all-important attacking lineouts, putting us in good positions in their 22 and although our first two visits were thwarted by some crossing and a Bundee jackle respectively, it was to be third time lucky.


Our first score might have only been a penalty but I feel it's worth harping on almost as much as a try, firstly for how it was constructed, and ultimately for the decision to take the three. In the early stages of the match teams had up to 10-phase possessions at midfield but when it became a kicking battle, our back three were clearly having the edge.


And when Jimmy O'Brien's boot found some grass in the Connacht 22 forcing Carty to hesitate a bit before shipping it to a team mate for a clearance, there we were with that attacking lineout once more and we worked our way towards the line before Connacht's defence had to ship a penalty.


Maybe the two-legged nature of this Round of 16 meant this wasn't quite "knockout rugby" but for the first time this season there were no bonus points on offer so while in all matches prior to this one we would have gone for the corner in this situation, the fact that we were away in a first leg here meant I was delighted that Sexton opted for the placekick here.


Still, you could argue that there may have been a hint of arrogance in the decision as well because on the early evidence we had shown that our systems were working well enough to ensure it wouldn't be long before we were back looking for more scores.


20-HT


Shortly after the restart a hit from Doris on Tiernan O'Halloran, fractionally after the full back had returned to earth from a catch, put us back in possession and as well as having an edge in the kicking duel we were also finding more space in the wider channels.


In the midst of working it from one side of the pitch to the other Josh van der Flier had a carry in a central position where he was grabbed round the ankles by Finlay Bealham. Josh hasn't been used to being stopped so soon in his carries of late, nor have his support runners for that matter, but once he hit the deck here his quick thinking was critical as he knew to let the ball go before regathering, thus allowing his team mates to regroup and set up the next phase.


And on that very next phase, the 7th in this set, Sexton sent it to Hugo Keenan who ran as though he was looking to get it to Conan on the touchline, which clearly Bundee Aki thought was going to happen as well, so when instead the ball was sent back inside to Lowe cutting behind, our winger had enough space to turn on the after burners all the way under the posts to provide me with my lead off picture.


With Connacht not so keen to send more tactical kicks our way, they went back to running it up the middle on their next possession, only there was Caelan Doris again to win it back, this time being the most alert at a breakdown spotting the ball which was literally there for the taking.


It took a little bit of Mack Hansen cheekiness to prevent a Keenan 5022 and they cleared but not far enough and we went on the attack again before striking once more from well outside their red zone. Again it was Bundee Aki caught out as a neat ball from Lowe allowed Keenan to cut inside him and once through he sent it back to Lowe in support and despite Porch's best efforts to stop him, he still bagged a 2nd try for both himself and his province.


The final ten minutes of the half were all about taking more threes, with Connacht getting two to our one over this time. It won't surprise you to learn I thought the two awarded against Leinster were harsh, the first being when Josh Murphy got some of his opponent's arm in a lineout jump (despite getting the ball first), and the latter a very borderline call on Cian Healy right before the break.


Our own penalty came after a great read by Luke McGrath of a wraparound move saw him pinch the ball and once again we took the sensible option of the kick for the posts. All of which meant Carty was narrowing the the margin to one converted try as they went into the "sheds", maybe not the best scoreline given how the match started but it certainly looked better given how Leinster responded with interest.

40-60


When Luke McGrath's kick was grabbed by a Galway gust into touch on the full it gave Connacht the chance to start the second half much as they did the first, and with both centres Aki and Farrell leading with strong carries they worked their way into our 22 to earn a penalty advantage under the posts leaving the margin and just four.


But one thing Leinster have been famed for (well, on these pages anyway) is quickly reacting after a score and you can't get much quicker than Jimmy O'Brien getting in Farrell's face to block his exit clearance before following up and forcing Jack Carty back over his own line for a 5m scrum.


From the set piece we worked more space on the far side for Lowe to dot down for what looked like his hat-trick, only for the TMO to spot a knockon by McGrath in the build up. Now it was a case of making decisions again and now Sexton was choosing to forego the easy-ish (always ish in Galway) points and go for another scrum.


So clearly it was critical that we get over the line on this visit and Robin McBryde's scrum was solid at a rock, earning another penalty which meant we were going for another big shove, which forced the referee's arm up again and was followed by a warning : "the next one, you know where we go".


There was another arm out on the next scrum, but at this stage McGrath had been replaced by Jamison Gibson-Park and with the scrum moving forward it was easy enough for the nine to to ship it into Hugo Keenan's line for try number three. Maybe, just maybe, the referee could have kept his promise even though the try was scored, and it didn't help either that Sexton couldn't add the extras, but the two-score cushion being restored was still very important at this stage.


Shortly after that came the moment that for which I have a feeling Gibson-Park's cameo might be better remembered. It started with a lineout outside the Connacht 22 where Kieran Marmion did a little snipe to escape towards halfway. He's running towards his opposing scrum half where he gets tackled around the ankles by Ed Byrne yet he still goes forward into JGP.


The hit didn't seem to be noticed by anyone in real time but when Marmion stayed down with blood pumping from his nose that is probably what prompted the TMO to have a look at the replay and once I saw that, I figured a red card was a certainty. For me, Byrne's tackle didn't play a factor and JGP remained upright the whole time, also leaning his shoulder towards Marmion's head before contact.


Somehow the referee Karl Dickson saw it differently, coming up with a description of JGP's actions as having "accepted the tackle" meaning enough mitigation for the sanction to be reduced to yellow. Not sure what else I can say other than I disagree, but I would add that when we discuss this match, we can't talk about this without also adding that Connacht were lucky not to have earned a yellow themselves at some point.


60-FT


The penalty put Connacht around halfway and then another put them deep into our 22. Obviously the 9 point margin meant kicking for the posts wasnt an option so as we got a warning ourselves, they kept going for the corner and after pummeling our line it was eventually Fifita who got it over and with Carty able to add the points, there were now only two in it.


Perhaps a pivotal moment could have chosen was when they turned over possession in their own half before strong runs from first Porch and then Fitzgerald brought it all the way into our 22 where about 6 phases later Oisin Dowling reached out for the line on a carry only to knock it on. The TMO was trying his best to talk the ref into awarding a high tackle by Jimmy O'Brien but I think he got this one right because the carrier was actually stretching out to place the ball down. The net result was that Leinster could clear just before JGP returned from the naughty step.


It was very scrappy rugby from here, with another tackle under the spotlight this time by reserve Connacht prop Tuimuaga, and Sexton complaining to the referee about something or other, but the net result was that we were winning more kickable penalties in those closing minutes and now we had more faith in our lineouts than our placekickers. James Tracy looked like he may have scored but the TMO showed he knocked it on, and on the next kickable penalty, Ross Byrne, now on for Sexton, misjudged the wind sending the kick to touch too long.


Finally after a crooked Connacht dart we set off on more phases in their 22 where we had not one but two penalty advantages to choose from when the play broke down, and after much discussion it looks like it was eventually Garry Ringrose who saw sense to opt for the points and Ross Byrne obliged.


The temporary confusion here might have been on purpose as the clock went from 75:13 when play stopped to 77:26 as Carty took the restart and from here we may not have added further points but we still had the bulk of the possession to make sure we at least had the five point margin to bring home to Dublin.


HARPIN POINTS


Much talk about the ref - I think if anything his display shows there's a certain way to officiate an interprovincial and it's not often we have one in Europe. That said, I do think he got some calls (more like non-calls) for cards wrong with regard to both sides and it will be interesting to see how Luke Pearce & co handle the return leg.


As for Connacht, they played really well in patches but after watching the match for a second time I really do think Leinster might have gotten a little complacent after that early run of fifteen points as if the job was done allowing them back into it. We had so much of an edge in set pieces and open play that we possibly left at least another seven points or so out there.


Player of the match was Caelan Doris for the second week in a row and he was certainly heavily involved in that decisive purple patch. Elsewhere I thought Molony and Josh Murphy were industrious and played a big role in our lineout being so settled yet I wonder if we are to progress beyond this stage of the competition (not taking anything for granted of course) we will probably need at least one from James Ryan and Ryan Baird back to full fitness.


When it comes to these two-leg rounds, well I'm not as against them as many seem to be, and for sure there a lot of ties still well poised going into the reverse fixtures, but overall I'd be very happy to see a return to the "four team pools leading to quarterfinals" format as soon as possible.


WHAT'S NEXT


The good news is that Leinster are back at home next weekend. The even better news is that after having COVID on the premises here at Harpin Manor literally from New Years Day until the end of March, all going well I should be able to go to my first match of 2022 myself!


During the week I'll have a full Leinster Fan Panel on the podcast to discuss the Connacht home and away plus a bit of chat about the Women's Six Nations, then we'll have our usual features for Good Friday's match at the Aviva like team announcement, preview and of course the next writeup. Please do stay tuned and leave comments when the mood takes you. JLP


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019